A new report from the National Interactive Fire Agency predicts that wildland fire potential will remain exceedingly high throughout this month and September in California, the Northwest and Northern Rockies after an already record-breaking fire season.
So far this year, crews have battled 38,207 fires over 3,259,913 acres. That’s 1.1million acres more than during the same period last year and nearly 6,000 more fires.
As of today, large fires continue to burn in 13 states – and there’s no sign of the situation getting better anytime soon.
“Climate outlooks indicate warmer than normal conditions are likely for much of the CONUS (contiguous United States), especially the West, into fall,” the NIFC said. “The northern Intermountain West is likely to have drier than normal conditions in August, expanding to include most of the West during fall. Near normal precipitation is likely with the monsoon into August, which should continue to alleviate drought. However, drought is likely to expand and intensify across much of the West into fall.”
According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, 39.74 per cent of the US and 46.31 per cent of the lower 48 states were in drought as of July 27. That means 190.2 million acres of crops affected and 76.6 million residents.
“Much of the Southern Area and areas south of the Ohio River are likely to have below normal significant fire potential through September, but much of the Southeast US is forecast to have above normal fire potential in October and November,” the NIFC reported. “Normal significant fire potential is forecast for Alaska along with most of [the] Eastern Area.
“Above normal significant fire potential is likely to remain in portions of northern Minnesota in August. Above normal significant fire potential is forecast to continue through September for much of the Northwest, Northern Rockies, and northern portions of the Great Basin and Rocky Mountain Geographic Areas.”
The report continued: “Most mountains and foothills in California are forecast to have above normal potential through September with areas prone to offshore winds likely to retain above normal potential into October and November in Southern California. Leeside locations in Hawaii are likely to have above normal significant fire potential into October.”
Currently, 22,000 firefighters are deployed to incidents across the country and a member of a hotshot crew in Idaho has released a new video showcasing just how dangerous the work is. Jack Jones posted the documentary film in response to comments last month from California Rep Tom McClintock last month calling wildland crews “unskilled labour.”
“Wildfire firefighting is hot, miserable work, but it is not skilled labour,” he said.
Mr Jones – and his harrowing on-the-ground footage – disputes that.
He wanted to showcase “what it takes to even be able to make it onto a hotshot crew – and then from there to be able to do the work day in and day out and the kind of dangers that are faced and the stressors and the time spent away from home,” he said.
Crews are required to “have higher levels of fitness because work is extremely demanding and the terrain in which we’re working is so inhospitable that not having the requisite level of fitness really puts your life and other people’s lies in danger.
“You’re expected to come in day one being really, really fit. They want you to run a six-minute mile and be able to hike three miles with a 50-pound pack up 1,000 feet of elevation in under 50 minutes.”
Once the fire season gets going, he said, “you’re just generally just gone all across the country”.
“On just an average day, you might hike two to four miles in one to three miles of elevation ... it’s right straight up the mountain.”
Getting up those difficult terrains, where engines and bulldozers can’t make it, is the specialisation of hotshot crews, he said.
“Cutting lines means literally cutting a line through the forest. A fire line can be anywhere from 20 to 40 feet wide ... The idea is, when the fire reaches this break we’ve created, it’ll drop in intensity – and when it hits, that bare dirt line, it won’t be able to cross that.
“The saw teams not only have to cut down all the brush and the trees, but once it’s down, it has to be picked up and thrown out of that area. It’s just really nonstop. You just dig and dig and dig.”
He added: “That’s why the fitness standards are so high. This is really an extreme endurance event. This is a high-risk and very dangerous job.
“You’re working with chainsaws and sharp tools, you’re working around fire and hazard-weakened trees. You’re inhaling a tremendous amount of smoke over the course of a season, and there’s always the risk that fire weather conditions could change in an instant and you could get entrapped very quickly.”